“Heeeeyyy. You’re not Charles Dickens.”
Not having seen The Muppet Christmas Carol in over a decade made me forget how effective an adaptation it is of Charles Dickens‘ classic tale. It helps that I’ve seen other iterations in the meantime, especially the one from 1951 starring Alastair Sim which Brian Henson‘s version works hard to closely mimic. There are obvious excisions such as Ebenezer Scrooge’s sister and additions like manufacturing Jacob Marley a brother named Robert so Statler and Waldorf can both get in on the fun, but for the most part it’s an extremely faithful retelling by our narrator—Dickens stand-in Gonzo (Dave Goelz). The addition of a sidekick in Rizzo the Rat (Steve Whitmire) therefore greatly helps deflect any doom and gloom an accurate telling provides for the children’s sake.
As Gonzo says: it’s not scary, it’s culture. When you’re dealing with a story that sends three spirits to haunt a grouchy old man you’re going to have a certain creepy factor. Add the Dark Crystal-era looking puppet for The Ghost of Christmas Past (voiced by Jessica Fox) and nightmares may become a legitimate concern. So you wait for Rizzo to deliver a sarcastic retort or hurt himself in some physical pratfall to get your kids laughing again before the next bit of depression arrives showing how much people dislike old Ebenezer (Michael Caine). The Ghost of Christmas Present’s absent-minded affability is a welcome change of pace too as it’s hard not to chuckle along with he and Scrooge, the latter of whom grows kinder very early here.
What makes this one good for kids besides Jim Henson‘s creations is the memorable score from Miles Goodman with songs by Paul Williams that will stick in your head for days to come. Each one fits without bloat or a dumbing-down of the material and who doesn’t enjoy seeing a spread of vegetables singing in tune as the camera moves about the streets of London? The set is equally imaginative with skewed doorways and snow-covered shingles and the mix of live actors and puppets keeps a level of verisimilitude the Muppets have been known to cultivate the two decades previously. A couple green screen heavy scenes where Kermit (Whitmire) is shown walking can appear a tad awkward, but they get the job done with a smile.
But don’t think it’s merely a retelling by Jerry Juhl to get children loving Dickens because there’s a lot to love for adults too—especially those who grew up with Henson and know these characters like the back of their hands. The most obvious casting is of course Kermit as Bob Cratchit since he’s the star of the Muppet menagerie and Bob is the most logical choice given his involvement in Scrooge’s life and payoff with Tiny Tim, but you have to love the use of Fozzie the Bear (Frank Oz) as Fezziwig due to the name mirroring. It tickles me to think maybe they were watching A Christmas Carol and thought it funny how similar Fozzie was to Fezziwig. Boom: The Muppet Christmas Carol was born.
Statler and Waldorf’s consummate hecklers as the Marleys is great, Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit allows for her explosive temper to boil opposite Scrooge, and the rest get sprinkled in for good measure whether it be Lew Zealand throwing his fish for a quick second or Sam the Eagle as headmaster forgetting he was in England and not America. Bean the Bunny appears as well as Ma Bear, and the cutest little mice you ever did see pop up here and there for added drama and tear-jerking sympathy. Even Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are involved to solicit money from Scrooge for the poor—both turning fearful once their hopeful beneficiary turns cruel. There’s enough for multiple viewings so pick out each character as though in a stage play.
The biggest draw besides Caine giving his all opposite felt creatures is ultimately Gonzo and Rizzo’s rapport. If it doesn’t work for you the film may be a tough sell considering the adaptation could be viewed in countless other versions, but you’ll have a good time if it does because their breaking the fourth wall to bring us along for the ride keeps it interesting. Rizzo’s hunger provides nice comedy, Gonzo’s omniscience as storyteller and his small counterpart’s skepticism to that end never fails to delight, and they can’t be thrown from window sills enough to render it not funny. These are the things kids will enjoy, distracting them so the content covertly sinks in. This wasn’t simply a money-grab and its artistic merit definitely speaks for itself.